Byamba Sakhya's 'Passion' (Khusel Shunal) highlights the plight of contemporary Mongolian cinema.

SFIAAFF Brings 'Light,' Captures Attention

Adam Hartzell March 10, 2011

The 29th edition of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival stretches across the Bay Area, from San Francisco to Berkeley to San Jose March 10–20, bringing “Stories to Light” as the Center for Asian American Media's new tagline says. Indeed, both the stories and their potential audiences would be left in the dark without the solid efforts of new festival steward Misashi Niwano and Christine Kwon (festival director and managing director, respectively). In a city privileged with a vast array of film festivals throughout the calendar year, it’s no small feat that SFIAAFF continues to hold the public’s focused attention.

Three films this year exemplify the special place SFIAAFF occupies in the cinemascape of San Francisco. The first is Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words by director Yunah Hong. It highlights the “Asian American” in SFIAAFF. In many ways, Wong was her own one-woman center for Asian American media, a pioneer in negotiating the political economy of early Hollywood. Wong has been referenced often throughout the history of SFIAAFF and Hong's documentary provides a wonderful summary of the re-visioning of Wong. To tell her story, the documentary compiles images of the actress, snippets of her films, commentary from those who knew her and studied her work, and, most importantly, words from Wong's own letters and writings. Channeled by actress Doan Ly as Wong, the writing intimately introduces us to Wong’s struggles and accomplishments on stage and in life. Particularly interesting for those who have read Hye Seung Chung's excellent Hollywood Asian: Philip Ahn and the Politics of Cross-Ethnic Performance is the moment when the friendship between Ahn and Wong is brought into the documentary. One of the best screening duos you can make for yourself this year would be to watch Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words along with this year’s SFIAAFF Out of the Vaults film, Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937). Such would be a two-film syllabi concerning how the politics of yellow face and production codes obstructed Wong’s career. Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words is a concise primer on a woman and the various political nodes connected to her time and place in history. It is the type of documentary we expect from SFIAAFF's programming and it delivers.

For at least two decades now, all film festivals that construct an international frame realize they must have Asian directors on their schedules. SFIAAFF has familiarized us with directors who are now regulars on the festival circuit, from Hirokazu Kore-eda to Hong Sang-Soo to Jia Zhang-ke. (Jia’s latest film, I Wish I Knew, will be screened at this year's SFIAAFF.) But along with popularizing directors early in their careers, SFIAAFF introduces us to national cinemas that have gone neglected or misunderstood. Fulfilling this latter mission are this year's selection of Vietnamese films (the action film Clash and the dance film Saigon Electric) and a mini-retrospective of Southeast Asian horror films curated by Niwano (Thailand’s Nang Nak, Malaysia’s Histeria and The Philippines’ Affliction. This year’s surprise international film for me was Jeon Kyu-hwan’s Dance Town. And not just because it features a cameo from Darcy Paquet, the proprietor of the preeminent English-language blog on South Korean Cinema (and, full disclosure, another website where I write regularly), in a role as an American missionary in South Korea. One of two films this year that have a focus on the plight of North Koreans, (the other being Zhang Yu’s Dooman River), it follows a North Korean woman (played perfectly by Ra Mi-ran) who finds herself separated from her husband during her escape. By showing her gradual building and breaking of trust in her new, strange home, Dance Town refuses to sentimentalize escape as the end of a road, but rather treats it as yet another stop on the a much longer road of struggle.

The spotlit filmmaker this year is Gurinder Chadha. (While detailing the two films of hers which will be screened this year, Bend It Like Beckham and It‘s a Wonderful Afterlife, SFIAAFF’s curators were delighted to remind folks at the press screening that Chadha met her partner at a past SFIAAFF.)

But the best representation of SFIAAFF’s original take on its international mission is in a single film: Byamba Sakhya's Passion (Khusel Shunal). I know nothing about Mongolian Cinema, but thanks to Sakhya’s poignantly sad film, I know that I want to know more. Passion is a road trip through the history of Mongolian cinema told to us by Sakhya as he rides with revered Mongolian director Byamba Jigjid promoting his film Human Traffic throughout the villages of Mongolia. Shut out of the primary revenue source for movies in the capital of Ulaan Baatar, Jigjid sets-up impromptu movie houses in community centers. One stop leads him to his old office, now a dormitory for film students. When he speaks with the student in the room that was once his office, she has no idea who Jigjid is, a sad moment underscoring Mongolian cinema’s plight. My only complaints are really more like whines, wanting to see more snippets of important Mongolian films within the documentary and wishing SFIAAFF would have included a screening in this year’s festival of one of the few Mongolian films shown in Passion. But the documentary has piqued my interest enough that I’ll wait for a future SFIAAFF or other San Francisco festivals to fill that void in my knowledge.

And then there's a third important aspect of SFIAAFF, the “San Francisco.” Many films provide viewers an opportunity to see Asian American communities from the eyes of those who live within them. Chuck Mitsui reveals the ennui within the sprawl within the paradise many assume is Hawai'i in One Kine Day. Suite Suite Chinatown is an omnibus film of personal visions of the Chinatowns of various Chinese Canadian filmmakers. But Surrogate Valentine presents our town in ways we wish greater Hollywood would. And this in spite of being directed by an out-of-towner, Dave Boyle, who while in town for a past SFIAAFF for his film White on Rice, met local singer/songwriter Goh Nakamura. The collaboration that resulted is this year's SFIAAFF closing night film. A fiction, it features Goh as Goh as he is followed from San Francisco to Seattle to LA and back again by a D-list actor who Goh's friend has contracted to play him in a film about Goh's life. When an ex-flame (Lynn Chen of Saving Face) re-enters the scene, we watch Goh subtly re-evaluate the indie life and the sacrifices that one makes to pursue art at a certain level. Goh's first role, he more than holds his own, and as you watch him meander these streets many in the audience have walked themselves, it becomes the unique experience only a film festival rooted in a specific place can offer.

For those of you who’ve lamented the time-space continuum breaks in films supposedly taking place in San Francisco where somehow a character turns a corner in North Beach and ends up in front of the Castro Theatre (Ed TV), or where everyone’s White and nobody’s Gay (they even required J Lo to become Italian American for The Wedding Planner) or, as Peter Hartlaub lamented on SFGate earlier this year, where no one has trouble finding parking (well, that is one beef I have with Surrogate Valentine), Surrogate Valentine is a San Francisco you know and can sing along with.